I’d like to be able to say that I am free of fear and anxiety. Especially as a writer of books that occasionally touch on these topics. People often look to me for answers, strategies, or techniques they can use.
But rather than pretend that I don’t have these struggles so that you might think I’ve mastered myself and then listen to everything I have to say, I felt it would be better to be honest.
Then at least I can honestly say that while I’ve not mastered fear and anxiety, there are some things that I’ve found you can do that can really help. Both immediately and also in the longer term.
Truth be told, I’ve struggled with fear and anxiety all my life. I don’t think it’s a realistic goal for most people to strive to be free of them. This is because no matter where you are in your life, life will always have the occasional curve ball up its sleeve. Fear and anxiety are common to the human condition.
Instead, it’s more productive to find ways to work with fear and anxiety. Sometimes to reduce them, sometimes even to quickly push through.
The latter is one of my personal strategies. Through necessity, I might add, rather than choice. Sometimes you have no option but to just do the thing regardless. I think most of us can relate to this.
My mantra at times like this is, “I’m just going to do it anyway.”
It sounds brave. But in my mind, it’s an attempt at being brave. Call it a coping strategy. It’s for when you have little choice but to go ahead. It works, though.
As a writer and public speaker, you might be surprised to learn that I used to have a fear of public speaking. In fact, I remember having to give a 10-minute presentation as part of a job interview several years ago. I was so nervous that a little bit of pee actually eked out.
Yes, I partially wet myself.
But I’ve learned over the years that sometimes great things await us on the other side of our fears. Sometimes it’s just relief. Sometimes it’s a sense of achievement. Sometimes it’s much more.
Since fear and anxiety are so, so common, as someone who has struggled in this arena almost all my life, I thought I’d share with you a few of my personal ‘go-to’ strategies. Here they are:
1) Notice triggers
I’ve learned to notice some triggers that cause me anxiety. One of them is a sense of time urgency. I get butterflies – that nervous feeling in the tummy – and my legs feel like jelly.
But what makes anxiety worse is if we then focus on how we feel at these times, both mentally and physically. I’ve learned to just notice these triggers when they arise, notice how my body feels – the butterflies, the weak legs – and I’ve come to learn that the feeling and physical sensations don’t last very long.
When I acknowledge things like this, the feeling abates and disappears much more quickly. It’s partly due to the fact that resisting things makes them persist, while looking directly at them makes them disappear. That’s quite a general phenomenon.
2) Use your body to create how you want to feel
When you feel fearful or anxious, your body will always ‘wear’ it. What I mean here is that your shoulders will tense, your spine will bend and you’ll sit back on your hips, your head will dip, your face will tense, and your breathing will become shallow. Usually, all of these things happen, but at the very least, some of them.
Now, when these things happen, they also reinforce the fearful and anxious feelings. This is because there’s a constant synchronisation between how you feel on the inside and how your body appears on the outside.
The amazing thing about this, though, is that it’s two-way. It’s not just your feelings that affect your physical state, but that the way you hold and move your body also affects your feelings.
So when you feel fearful or anxious, shift your body into a strong, confident, or relaxed stance. And hold it for at least one minute. Make your posture purposeful. Not a half-hearted attempt at it. Make your body seem that it’s taking control. No ifs or buts.
Your brain quickly gets the idea that you must feel good because that’s what this physical posture is in synchronisation with. So quite quickly, you start to feel relaxed or confident.
Here, you’re using your body to create how you want to feel.
To be honest, this is one of the most helpful and powerful things I’ve ever learned.
3) Do a victory dance
An extension of this is to follow up with a silly dance once you’ve held your relaxed or confident posture for a minute or so. Mind you, it’s best if you do this when you’re on your own.
Simply burst into a silly dance. I call it a victory dance, as in celebrating victory in managing my state. Make it a silly dance, one that makes you smile. Again, due to the synchronisation between your internal and external state, this practice will actually help you not just reduce fear and anxiety, but you’ll feel lighter and more positive.
Do it for as long as you need to. And the more you practice it, the faster its effects work and the longer they last.
4) Do things that support your mental health
Identify things that usually make you feel good and do them. I play tennis. Of course, it’s great exercise, but I also do it because it supports my mental health. I love the feelings I get from the exercise, but also the sense of achievement from learning new shots and techniques and improving on my performance.
It’s a tonic for my mental health.
Cooking is a mental health tonic for me too. I love learning a new recipe and cooking it several times until I can do it without looking at the recipe. Then I adapt it and enhance it (at least according to my own taste). This gives me a sense of growth and achievement.
I also love preparing the food. The concentration while I chop ingredients is mindfulness meditation for me. I intentionally focus on the sounds and textures as I slice and chop ingredients.
On a cookery-upside, the mindful concentration helps you develop an ability to slice vegetables astonishingly thin. Like an art-form. If that’s of added interest.
5) Practice kindness
I’ve written in books and other blogs that the experience of kindness is neurologically and physiologically the opposite of the experience of stress. This is a fact.
Sometimes, when I feel fearful or anxious, I think of people whom I know need some help, even if it’s just a chat, and I reach out to them.
Genuine kindness takes you out of yourself. In the moment that your attention shifts onto the needs of another person, it shifts away from your own feelings.
I also practice a meditation called ‘metta’ or ‘Loving-Kindness’. Here, you think of different people in your life and you wish each of them in turn, health, happiness, good fortune, and freedom from pain and suffering.
6) Reach out
Depending on the feeling. Sometimes, if it’s too much, I reach out to someone I know and trust. Just speaking to someone can make a huge difference. It can settle your nerves but also help you to just get some things off your chest.
Several years ago, when I was struggling with depression, but felt so ashamed to be feeling that way that I kept it from everyone, it was in telling my Mum that my recovery began.
This didn’t solve all my problems in a day, but it let out some of the hurt and pressure I’d been building inside and this allowed me to access better thoughts, better feelings, and eventually move my life in a better direction.
My life now as a writer and speaker came out of this.
7) The 5-5-5 technique
This is a classic distraction technique that you can find online. When we feel fearful or anxious, the natural instinct is to focus even more on the thing we’re fearful or anxious about.
It’s because we’re trying to find some resolution to it in our minds. “If I do that then she’ll do this,” sort of thing. But this just puts us in mental spirals that make us feel even worse.
As a distraction, take a deep breath, look around you and name 5 things out loud that you see. Next, name 5 things that you can hear. Finally, move 5 parts of your body, one at a time.
It’s really handy in the moment, especially at the onset of fear or anxiety.
Mindfulness is a great technique because the act of conscious breathing has a calming effect on the human nervous system.
But the practice also alters brain activity. It draws activity away from the fear and anxiety regions (like the amygdala) and into the self-control regions (like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).
Over the years, I’ve noticed certain foods that support my mood and ones that can have a negative effect.
Too much sugar or sugary products can lower my mood. Of course, they give you a mood boost in the short term, which is why they can become addictive, but in the longer term they make me feel heavy and low.
I’ve noticed, on the other hand, that dishes that contain beans tend to support a positive mood in me, so I cook stews and bean-based salads at least 2 or 3 times a week.
I believe this is because beans are extremely high in fibre (and insoluble fibre), so they support the health of the microbiome in the gut.
Beans are prebiotic. That is, they contain a type of fibre that our gut bacteria feast upon. Here’s a recent scientific study on this, if you’d like to read more.
There’s now a known link between gut health and mental health. The healthier the gut, the healthier the mind. Usually. Not always as there can be other factors. But as a rule of thumb, improving your gut health will usually improve your mental health.
Coffee is something I need to avoid if I feel fearful or anxious. I love coffee and find that the caffeine helps me access a deeper state when I’m writing, so I get better quality work done.
But if I’m feeling anxious, caffeine is a big no-no. At times like this, caffeine makes it worse. Partly, this is because caffeine is a stimulant, so it stimulates the nervous system at a time when you really want your nervous system to be calming.
Well, that’s all for this blog. I hope the above advice is helpful for you. Please share it with anyone you know who struggles with fear or anxiety. I know exactly what it’s like. You’d do anything to feel different.
So I hope there’s something in this list that at least offers some assistance, both in the immediate short-term, but also in the longer term.